The Best Years of His Life:
A literary study of immaturity in American society
John Updike wrote a series of novels commonly known
as the “Rabbit Series.” There are
currently four novels in this series.
While writing multiple novels using the same themes and characters is
not unusual, Updike’s sequence of novels is extraordinary. Updike’s first novel in this series is Rabbit, Run which was first published in
1960; his next Rabbit Redux in 1971; Rabbit is Rich in 1981; and Rabbit at Rest in 1990. Thus Updike has produce one volume in every
decade for the past four decades. Not
only does the reader observe the life of the main character through these
years, but the reader also relives certain aspects of each decade. Updike incorporates into each novel the
political, social, economic and psychological attributes of American society in
each decade. The reader is confronted
with the conservatism of the fifties, the first lunar landing in the summer of
1969, the gas shortage of the seventies, and the expansion of the AIDS epidemic
in 1989. The reader engages not only the
lives of the Rabbit Angstrom family but also the events of American
society. One can only hope that Updike
will produce another novel in the series in the 2000s.
The central character for the entire series is named
Harry Angstrom who is better known as Rabbit.
His nickname derives from his high school basketball playing days in
which he was as quick and agile as a rabbit on the basketball court. He was the best player at his high school in
Brewer, Pennsylvania, “…in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in
basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his
senior year he broke…” (“Run” 11).
Rabbit’s success in high school athletics won him respect and admiration
among his peers. Unfortunately, his
early accomplishments did not continue into adulthood. This paper will examine the fictional life of
Rabbit Angstrom through the aforementioned novels. We shall examine a reoccurring theme of his
life. Rabbit seems to have lived his
best years in high school. His life is
not only depressing because it depicts a vacant existence, but it is tragic
because he never matured beyond his days of glory on the high school basketball
court. While others may build upon
success in high school, Rabbit cannot get past his early accomplishments. In short, he never matures. Thus Rabbit leads a depressingly superficial
and frustrating existence. Updike not
only paints a dismal picture of an anti-hero, but he also indicts the
shallowness that can be detected in modern American society.
The first novel in this series is Rabbit, Run. The title indicates the predominant action
taken by Rabbit in this novel. Rabbit
and his wife, Janice have a young boy, and she is pregnant with another child. One day, Rabbit becomes fed up with his life,
and he drives away. He leaves his
miserable job, his wife and his three-year-old boy, Nelson. He meets a woman named Ruth and moves in with
her for a while. Rabbit is introduced to
Ruth through his high school coach. At
the meeting, Rabbit talks about his basketball prowess, although he is disturbed
by the fact that his former coach does not recall the glorious games (“Run”
65). He relives the days when all he had
to worry about was shooting baskets. He
yearns for his glory days.
Meanwhile, his family is appalled by Rabbit’s
behavior. His wife’s family is
appalled. Even Rabbit is appalled, but
he does not want to face his responsibilities.
His wife has a baby girl, Rebecca.
Eventually, he makes an uneasy peace with his wife, and Rabbit assumes
some responsibility by going to work in his father-in-law’s car sales
business. However, Rabbit again
disappears one night; and in a state of drunken depression, Janice accidentally
allows their baby to drown in the bathtub.
Rabbit then runs away from Ruth and reluctantly returns and tries to
help, but he is essentially useless.
After the funeral, Rabbit goes out for a walk and thinks about his life,
“It’s like when they hear you were great and put two men on you and no matter
which way you turn you bump into one of them and the only thing you can do is
pass” (“Run” 283). The novel ends with
this thought as Rabbit runs again into the darkness of the night. Thus Rabbit’s life is an extended metaphor. Although Rabbit rarely frequents a basketball
court, he is still playing the game in his mind and in his life.
Rabbit Redux is Updike’s second novel in the
series. “Redux” is French for “led back”
which usually indicates a return to health from an illness. Ten years have passed since the previous novel. Nelson is a young teenager and Rabbit is now
thirty-six years old. Rabbit works with
his father in a print shop that is about to go out of business. Janice works for her father in his successful
car sales business and is rarely home.
Rabbit suspects her of infidelity, and he is justified in his suspicions.
The Angstrom family is dysfunctional at best and a
living nightmare normally. In the back
of each of their minds is Rabbit’s past infidelity. He was unfaithful not only to Janice but to
the family. The Angstrom family is the
antithesis of what stereotypical American values would hold dear. The Cleavers they are not. For instance, at a meal at a restaurant,
Janice’s amour, Charlie Stavros accidentally meets them there and an awkward
interchange takes place that is filled with jealousy and angst.
says to Stavros, “Charlie, why don’t you order for all of us? We don’t know what we are doing.”
Rabbit says, I know what I’m doing. I’ll order for
myself. I want the” – he picks something
at random- “the paidakia.”
says. I don’t think so. It’s marinated lamb, you need to order it the
day before, for at least six.” (“Redux” 45)
Janice’s speech indicates not only the family’s
confusion at a Greek restaurant, but the family’s lack of direction and
purpose. The Angstroms are floundering
and the family is falling apart at the seams.
Rabbit, however, refuses to acknowledge his own inadequacies and affirms
his patriarchal position in his dysfunctional household.
Rabbit and Janice separate. Rabbit commits further infidelities. Nelson is forced to live with his father
because Nelson does not fit into Janice’s plans. Rabbit takes in Jill, who is a runaway. Jill helps out by watching over Nelson. Both Nelson and Rabbit share amorous feelings
for Jill and they compete for her attention.
Rabbit continues his refusal to behave in a responsible manner. His infidelities are not so much a response
to his sexuality as they are a reaction against some part of his life he does
not like. His immaturity continues. This novel differs from the first in the
degree in which he searches for meaning in his life. In Rabbit,
Run, Rabbit runs because he is afraid to face his responsibilities. In Rabbit
Redux, Rabbit is desperately seeking for fulfillment in his life. His son, Nelson is a disappointment because
he does not engage in manly sports, like basketball. He looks for companionship in Jill, but she
understands him all too well, “What have
the pig laws done for you except screw you into a greasy job and turn you into
such a gutless creep you can’t even keep your idiotic wife?” (“Redux” 152). Rabbit is still playing his perpetual
basketball game he calls life. He
confronts Stavros regarding his wife; however, “…Stavros has sneaked in for a
lay-up and the game is in overtime” (“Redux” 163).
The Angstrom household becomes a seedy commune when
they take in Skeeter who is a fugitive and a friend of Jill. The Angstrom house burns down one night and
Jill is killed. Rabbit and Nelson were
at a friend’s house. The police suspect Skeeter, but Rabbit is convinced that
neighbors had set fire to the house because of the unsavory events which were
transpiring. Rabbit and Nelson go to
live with Rabbit’s parents and Rabbit further reverts back to his youth since
he is in the house of his childhood.
After a while, Rabbit and Janice reconcile with none of their problems
solved, only abated. Rabbit knows he
hasn’t matured, but he does not know what to do about it. All he can muster is an anemic, “I’m a
mess” (“Redux” 350).
A decade later, Updike publishes “Rabbit is
Rich.” Rabbit is now the manager of
Springer Motors which was Janice’s father’s business. Janice’s father has since passed away and Janice
has inherited his part of the business.
Rabbit is left to run the business as Janice spends most of her time
working on her backhand at the county club.
Rabbit regularly plays golf at the country club. They have no financial worries. The other part of the business still belongs
to Janice’s mother with whom they live in their very large house. Stavros still works at the car lot, and he
and Rabbit have become good friends.
Nelson is twenty-three years old and has dropped out of Kent State and
is seemingly directionless. Nelson
decides he would like to try his hand at selling cars at Springer Motors and
moves into the house with Rabbit, Janice and Ma Springer.
Rabbit has immortalized his high school basketball
playing days by having the newspaper clippings about his glory days framed and
hung at Springer Motors. The headline
reads, “Angstrom Hits For 42. Rabbit
leads Mt. Judge Into Semi Finals” (“Rich” 2).
There is still no sign of Rabbit’s maturation. The Angstroms say and do little things which
purposefully hurt each other. They do
this out of spite, playfulness and revenge.
Each person is carrying his or her own baggage of hate and guilt. During one argument, Rabbit blurts, “Janice,
what have I done to this kid to deserve this?”
To which she replies, “Oh, I expect you know” (“Rich” 114).
It seems that they have achieved some level of familiar comfort from
this puerile behavior.
Rabbit and Nelson tentatively sell cars together;
however, their relationship does not improve.
At best they are argumentative, but normally they are both
juvenile. After one particularly bad
disagreement, Nelson goes berserk and crashes two used cars together on the car
lot. Rabbit learns that the reason
Nelson dropped out of college was because his girlfriend, Pru who was a secretary
at Kent State is pregnant. Nelson decides
to marry Pru while Harry tries to talk him out of it. Harry wants Nelson to run as Harry had run
twenty years before. However, Nelson
resists the urge to run, not because he wants to persist in the marriage but
because he is afraid to run (“Rich” 223).
Janice and her mother decided to let Stavros go in order to make room
for Nelson permanently. Nelson is
approximately the same age as Harry was in the first novel. Nelson is following in his father’s
footsteps. Nelson is experiencing similar problems of commitment, love, and
maturity. They both refuse to
mature. Rabbit says to Janice,
“I depress the kid.”
“Harry I’m not
sure it’s you that’s doing it. I think
he’s just scared.”
“What’s he got
to be scared of?”
“The same thing
you were scared of at his age. Life.”
much of it, and not enough. The fear
that it will someday end, and the fear that tomorrow will be the same as
yesterday. (“Rich” 331)
Janice and Rabbit buy their own house to get away
form Nelson and his upcoming family. The
next day, the Rabbit and Janice leave for the Caribbean with two other couples
their age. There they engage in some
spouse swapping. While they are engaged
in extramarital activities, Nelson runs away from home, away from his pregnant
wife, and away from responsibility. Like
father, like son. In Nelson’s absence,
Pru has their baby girl. Rabbit and
Janice are forced to return early. Nelson sends a post card home asking for
money so that he could finish his degree at Kent State. The novel reaffirms the themes found in the
previous two novels. Rabbit and his
family lead a shallow and disgusting life.
Updike’s indictment of American society could not be worse.
Rabbit at Rest is the latest installment of the
Angstrom saga. Rabbit and Janice have a
winter home in Florida where they spend half a year. Nelson and Pru have two kids. The oldest is Judith who is nine years old,
and they have a boy named Roy. Nelson
runs Springer Motors under Rabbit’s distant supervision. Nelson and Pru still live in the Springer
house; however, Janice’s mother has long since died. Nelson lives mortgage free but has problems
financially. Rabbit suspects that Nelson
is in some sort of trouble. Nelson’s
nose runs all the time.
Rabbit has grown large in girth. He is fifty-six years old and has twinges of
pain in his chest. Golf is Rabbit’s
major interest in Florida while Janice still swings a tennis racquet. Rabbit and Janice are in their fifties and
are semi-retired. Nelson and his family
visit Florida. Nelson and Rabbit have
their usual, terrible time relating to each other. “The kid and I have something going on
between us alright. Not sure love is
what you’d call it” (“Rest” 142). Rabbit
takes his granddaughter Judy out sailing, and he experiences a heart
attack. At the hospital, the doctor
gives Janice some advice on nutrition.
To which Janice replies that this is what Pru has been advising Harry. “She’s been saying everything you’ve been
saying for years to Harry, but he just won’t listen. He thinks he’s above it all, he thinks he’s
still a teenager” (“Rest” 141). This has
been Rabbit’s perennial problem. Rabbit
has never matured beyond his teenage years.
He is impervious to good advice, and he thinks the world revolves around
him. The same can be said about Nelson.
Rabbit and Janice return to Brewer,
Pennsylvania. Janice is taking courses
to become a realtor. She wants to
achieve some level of independence.
Janice confronts Nelson about his cocaine abuse. Nelson owes tens of thousands of dollars to
drug dealers, and he has embezzled over $200,000 from Springer Motors. Nelson enters rehab and Rabbit undergoes
angioplasty and the doctors are recommending multiple bypass heart surgery. Rabbit is unable to control his eating habits
even though it is killing him. At a
Fourth of July celebration, Rabbit dons an Uncle Sam suit and marches through
town. He is greeted by cheers. The town “…still loves him, as it did when he
would score forty-two points for them in a single home game. He is a legend, a walking cloud” (“Rest”
307). Rabbit basks in the attention the
town gives him. He relishes the cheers
as if he were playing basketball again.
His best days were in high school.
Rabbit never matured beyond these years.
The Angstrom’s lives are falling apart, but that has
been the normal course of events for the entire family. In a self-indulgent and self-defeating act of
desperation, Rabbit and Pru who were feeling sorry for themselves have an incestuous
encounter. When Pru confesses to Nelson
and Janice, Rabbit makes a run for it - again.
He returns to their Florida condo to avoid confrontation. Rabbit, in an attempt to exercise, begins to
play basketball with local teenagers.
One day he has a major heart attack while playing basketball. The thought that rumbles through his head
while he was in the hospital was that he was winning. Janice goes to Florida to be at his
side. The depressing thought she had
was, “He had come to bloom early and by the time she got to know him... he was
already drifting downhill…” (“Rest”
423). His wife reaches the conclusion
that Rabbit’s best days were his days of glory on the basketball court.
The novel closes with Rabbit dying in the
hospital. Janice prays for God’s will to
be done, though she harbors thoughts of freedom. Nelson is crying in anguish. Rabbit manages to blurt out, “Well, Nelson,
all I can tell you is, it isn’t too bad” (“Rest” 425).
The four novels are a hideous indictment and
reflection of American society. It depicts
a society abundant with self-centered indulgence and shallowness. Materialism is America’s ultimate measure of
success. The idea of morality is found
empty. Bigotry reigns. Religious values are faked by most of its
practitioners. Intellectual achievement
is non-existent. Individual honor and
dignity are old-fashioned precepts that no longer apply. Rabbit never grows up. His puerile behavior is easily attributed to
This truly depressing set of novels is delicious
poison. The novels are painful to read,
but they are also irresistible. Like
Rabbit who must cut out salty junk foods, the reader and Rabbit must indulge in
just one more deadly bite. There is no
Rabbit at Rest. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1990.
_____, Rabbit is Rich. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1981.
_____, Rabbit Redux. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1971.
_____, Rabbit, Run.
New York: Fawcett Crest. 1960.